Ben Heppner, Opera’s ‘Lyric Tenor, Large Voice’

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Interview of Ben Heppner by Dick Staub (6/26/2003)

Well, welcome everybody. This is Dick Staub, “Mr. You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” thanking you for making me part of your afternoon. I’ve been looking forward to this next conversation, both because I love music but also I-I love people that are learning how to live out their faith in the real world, and are earning the right to be heard by the excellence of their craftsmanship, you know. Right now, there’s a whole bunch of people who are followers of Jesus who want to be making films, but they’re really bad filmmakers. And we get these regular requests to support this film even though it’s a really terrible film. Well, you know, the integration of our faith and work in my view requires a commitment to excellence in everything that we do. And it is through our excellence in our craftsmanship that we, in fact, earn the respect and therefore the right to share from our life with people. And our next guest knows whereof I speak. He is recognized worldwide as one of the finest dramatic operatic tenors before the public today. He has described himself as a lyric tenor with a larger voice. He’s acclaimed in music capitals around the world for his beautiful voice, intelligent musicianship, and sparkling, dramatic sense. And in addition to his professional accomplishments, he’s also a devoted follower of Jesus and somebody who’s committed to his family. And service in the community. And a lot of things that matter to people like me and many of you. I’m referring to Ben Heppner.
Q. And it’s wonderful to have you with us today.
A. Thank you, Dick. Great to be here.
Q. You know, I want to start with something that I’ve-I’ve honestly always
wondered and that is, how does a little kid decide that he’s going to be an opera singer when he grows up? I mean, how do you it’s such an unusual track.
A. Well, maybe I should have called myself the accidental opera singer.
Q. I mean, what happened to you, young man?
A. When I went off and left the farm¢â‚¬¦
Q. Were you really raised on a farm?
A. Well, for the first eight years.
Q. Yeah.
A. And then moved¢â‚¬¦
Q. Milking cows and that kind of stuff?
A. Well, yeah, when they let me. I really wasn’t trained well enough.
Q. That wasn’t an area of craftsmanship.
A. Well, see, I think probably what happened was I don’t actually have any
marketable skills so, therefore, why don’t I just be a singer. But I went off to university thinking, you know, I could maybe be a music teacher. I somehow wanted to spend my life with music–
Q. Yeah.
A. –in some way. And the idea of being a performer was the farthest thing from
my mind.
Q. Right.
A. So when I went there I kind of got sidetracked into being in the performance
program.
Q. Now, I want to back up for a minute.
A. Uh-huh.
Q. There was no evidence as a kid that you had this operatic, this wonderful
extraordinary voice?
A. Well, the extraordinary voice, I think, was there. But operatic? No.
Q. Okay. Extraordinary voice. So you’re in singing in high school choirs and
stuff?
A. Not so much choirs. I mean, you know where I grew up, you know, singing is
definitely something that could get you beat up, not a great acclaim.
Q. See, this is why I find this fascinating.
A. So I was in the band. I did some singing, and mostly through church.
Q. You starred in the band, which also made you a natural hero.
A. No, no, not through band, but through church and through community things I
did some singing.
Q. Right.
A. And then I ended up going to the university and really thinking I’d be a music
teacher, do choirs, and I’d do band at high school. And I kind of got sidetracked into the performance program. And voice. And¢â‚¬¦
Q. Sidetracked.
A. I’m really grateful, yeah.
Q. Somebody pointed you in that direction? Somebody said, Ben, this is really
where you ought to go. How did this happen?
A. They said, Ben, you should-you should go sing for, you know, Dr. Morris.
Q. And this is where?
A. Vancouver, UBC. And I-I¢â‚¬¦ Should meant must. You know, if you do a
translation, should and must seemed like the same thing. So out of a sense of duty, I went and sang.
Q. And what year are you in school now?
A. First year.
Q. Okay. First year¢â‚¬¦
A. I’m 18 years old.
Q. Yeah. And what happens when you go see him?
A. I get into the performance program. I didn’t realize that I-if I
Q. If you auditioned for him?
A. ¢€œif I auditioned for him, I could be a music teacher.
Q. You auditioned for him?
A. I auditioned for him.
Q. Do you remember what you sang?
A. Probably from The Messiah. I think I sang¢â‚¬¦
Q. Really.
A. It’s from The Messiah.
Q. So that’s something you knew from your church background.
A. Well, yeah. I learned that the previous year when I went to Bible college for a year.
Q. So where did you go to Bible college?
A. Regina, Saskatchewan.
Q. Really. Prairie Bible Institute? Is that the name of the college?
A. No, Canadian Bible College.
Q. Canadian Bible College. Oh, that’s right. The Christian Missionary Alliance school. So now, when you’re an operatic singer¢â‚¬¦ Well, first of all, at what point did you begin to realize that this-this actually may be an accidental career?
A. Well, what time is it now? You know, it wasn’t really until after I graduated. I didn’t like opera at all. I did a little bit in university.
Q. Had you heard it as a kid?
A. No. Or when I did it was on the-on the TV, and I couldn’t believe that people were singing that loud¢â‚¬¦
Q. Right in each other’s faces.
A. Very intimate things at very loud volumes. It seemed so ridiculous. So I didn’t-didn’t sort of caught on to it at all.
Q. Yeah.
A. And after I graduated university, even with a little bit of experience I had about a year and a half
Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œof university opera experience, I still didn’t think about. But I won a major competition in Canada in 1979.
Q. That was the CBC thing.
A. CBC competition. That means Canadian Broadcasting Corporation instead of Canadian Bible College.
Q. Right. Right.
A. And then after that I thought, hey, maybe I got a chance to make a career here. And that was when I started considering it.
Q. Were you loving it by that point?
A. Opera? No. I really intended¢â‚¬¦ What I mean by making a living was concerts and recitals.
Q. Really.
A. And it wasn’t until two years later when there was no money coming in and I realized maybe I should take a look at opera. People kept saying, you know, I think you’ve got a¢â‚¬¦
Q. This was after you graduated?
A. Uh-huh.
Q. So there was nobody tracking you in that way?
A. Not particularly. I was married, I had had a child in ’81, and I still had no career.
Q. Yeah.
A. I wasn’t earning any money of any consequence to make-pay the bills. So I decided to go explore opera. I went off to Toronto. I was living in Montreal at the time. Off to Toronto, and I entered opera school. One year into an apprenticeship program.
Q. Is that how you explore opera these days? You go to a¢â‚¬¦
A. It was from my point of view pragmatic.
Q. Yeah. You go to school.
A. Yeah, well, if anything can be pragmatic about opera. But, yeah. I went into opera.
Q. When you say, “if anything can be pragmatic,” it sounds-it sounds well, it sounds like you think about opera the way a lot of people mere mortals do. It’s hard to understand, it’s hard to figure out what it’s about.
A. It took me awhile. It took me awhile to start to understand the whole, the genre, you know, the whole idea of what it is about. What is it? This is weird. It’s acting, it’s-it’s singing, it’s you know, exactly what it is. What is it.
Q. And-and how would you describe to a relatively uninitiated person who listens to it. You know, what’s interesting is people are beginning to become accustomed to opera because it’s used in movies.
A. Uh-huh.
Q. As a kind of¢â‚¬¦ You know, background scores.
A. Yeah.
Q. And people are beginning to go, well, that’s kind of nice.
A. Yeah. Actually, if anybody’s seen, I think it’s called Shadow Conspiracy. Q. Yeah.
A. They took one of my arias and there’s people killing themselves on, I think, the Vietnamese killing fields while I’m singing Nessun dorma. Anyway.
Q. What’s new?
A. What is-what is opera to a-to a novice? I would say it’s a story told through music.
Q. Yeah.
A. And you have to understand that the
Q. In another language.
A. In a-well-well¢â‚¬¦ Not always.
Q. Often.
A. Often. Most frequently. And you have the story, even the dialogue is sung. That’s something that they have to get over. They have to understand that we sing the dialogue, not just speak it like in
Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œmusic theater, for example. They might speak it and then they’d break into song.
Q. Yeah.
A. This, mostly, is song all the way through. So you just have to get used to that convention and the emotions. The reason that you sing these intimate things and what not at great volume levels is that the-the passion is so great. That’s what’s coming through.
Q. Yeah. And that’s why people connect to it. It’s a very passionate thing.
A. It’s about the voice.
Q. Yeah. Now, when you-but when you look at the languages involved. I mean,
how many languages do you need to have in your repertoire to be an opera singer?
A. Well, always more than I have. You know, my German is pretty good. My
French is okay. My Italian is okay. But I’ve also done a fair bit of opera in Czech, which I do not speak.
Q. Really.
A. I know some really great words in Czech like chlapecek, which means baby.
You know, infant.
Q. That sounds so tender.
A. Zizala, which means worms. That’s a long story why I know that word.
Q. Yeah. It was an opera about babies and worms.
A. Exactly. It’s called Jenufa and it’s a great opera. Russian, too. But I don’t
speak any Russian.
Q. So now, when you say, “don’t speak,” you say¢â‚¬¦ That means you do speak
some Italian? You do speak some French and German?
A. Yes. German is the one that I have more¢â‚¬¦
Q. But some opera singers can get by in an opera with a language that they only
know the music
A. Phonetically.
Q. ¢€œthey know phonetically. They don’t really-they don’t really know the
language.
A. That’s right. But we know what this language is. It sounds like a commercial
break to me.
Q. Yeah, exactly. See, he’s very sharp. You’re a man who’s come a long way.
Well, this is Dick Staub. We’re going to be back with our new found friend, Ben Heppner. Coming up right after this, a little bit more about his-his life and his work and his journey, on the Dick Staub show. You’re listening to Seattle’s Christian Talk AM 820. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back.
(Break.)
Q. So what’s going on here?
A. Oh, he’s-he’s–
Q. The worms and the babies are now gathering their wits about them. Now
that’s Czechoslovakian.
A. That’s right.
Q. So these are friends.
A. He’s worried about Didon. He’s returning to Carthage, and
Q. Yeah.
A. –things are going-things are going wrong.
Q. What a beautiful voice. I mean, it is-it is a truly beautiful voice, and extreme
passion and emotion and all the good stuff. It’s a gift.
A. Well, yeah. It keeps me off the streets at night.
Q. To be cultivated. So opera demands preparation vocally.
A. Yeah.
Q. Linguistically.
A. Yeah.
Q. Dramatically.
A. Yeah.
Q. You gotta have the whole package.
A. Yes. It helps-it helps if you have at least two of the three.
Q. So what differentiates the good from the best? What is it-what is it when
somebody’s listening to opera where they can really discern some differences?
A. Well, I think there’s an ease there’s-there’s-well, there’ll be something that
will really relate to the audience. The audience will-will embrace the voices. Not everyone, by the way. The voice is a very personal thing.
Q. Yes.
A. So not everybody is going to like my voice. Not everybody will like Callas’s
voice, for example
Q. Right.
A. ¢€œwho was probably the biggest diva that we’ve had in this century. And, you
know, so it’s a personal identification. But there’s-there will be something, some unique trademark that is identifiably you. Drop a needle and you should be able to figure out is Heppner singing. That’s the idea.
Q. Okay. Do you like to listen to yourself?
A. Huh-uh. No.
Q. So-so you don’t sit down and listen to your own CDs at night.
A. Oh, heavens. Why would I when I’ve got so many other people I can listen
to.
Q. So now, how many people can actually make a living as an opera singer?
A. Well, it’s actually pretty decent. You can earn your living at several different
levels. You can do what I do, which is really kind of nice. And you-you can premiere soloist in the main houses. You can also do premiere soloist in-in houses that are more regional.
Q. Yeah.
A. You could also be a comprimario singer, so a supporting singer. And there’s a
great call for those, as well. And you could be a chorus member. The Met chorus, in particular, makes a good thing.
Q. How do you explain opera’s staying power?
A. Well, I mean, it’s great art. And there’s-I-I think the one thing that defines art
for me is something that is over and over again you can go back to and see something new and fresh
Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œand vibrant and exciting.
Q. Well, and every performer brings their own interpretative moments and so
forth.
A. That’s right.
Q. Like a play.
A. Yeah. And we have to-I sort of call myself a re-constructionist sometimes. I
bring these things to life.
Q. Now, how controversial was it when they began to do the English subtitling of
operas because, after all, you’re supposed to know the story. You’re supposed to have learned the opera. You’re supposed to bring your opera glasses. You’re not supposed to be reading an English subtitle burned across the screen above the actors or below them.
A. The-the purists were, you know, are still a little bit upset. They find it very
distracting as they’re-they’re looking up.
Q. Yeah.
A. And I keep telling them if they buy cheap seats like I do, they can actually see
the opera and see the translations at the same time. I was going to tell you that the surtitles, as we call them, is in fact, I was in, as I understand it, the first performance that was actually done was in Toronto.
Q. Really.
A. And it was Elektra, a Strauss opera, in ’83. I think it was ’83. And that was
the first time we did it. They’ve learned a lot of things. For one thing, in the big arias, the big, you know, our big solo numbers, they do less-they do less translations. They sort of give you a good idea of what’s going on and then they tend to fade it out.
Q. Yeah.
A. And that’s very helpful because once in a while they can-they can-they can
make it become very funny when it really ought not to be.
Q. So there you are pouring your heart out in a tragic scene and you’re hearing
giggling.
A. That’s right. Yeah.
Q. Ooh, this is not good.
A. So I like it because, you know, I’m not a purist. I-I want to communicate.
Q. Yeah.
A. And it’s wonderful to be on stage and to be doing funny stuff and to be saying
funny stuff and the audience is getting it.
Q. Yeah, yeah.
A. Of course they’re getting it five seconds too late, but¢â‚¬¦
Q. At least they’re getting it.
A. Even-even that the people who are doing the projection stuff are figuring out
to lead the-the joke before the line, just fractionally.
Q. Now, your big breaks were what?
A. I won the Metropolitan Opera contest in 1988.
Q. The regional or national or the whole thing?
A. The-the whole thing.
Q. That’s huge.
A. There were actually 11 of us who won. It was a huge year. For those people
who are opera fanatics, my year included
Q. What year was that?
A. ¢â‚¬Ëœ88 included Renee Fleming¢â‚¬¦
Q. Oh, man.
A. Susan Graham.
Q. Yeah.
A. There was Hai Xheng Foo and Carolyn James and there was just¢â‚¬¦ But, I mean,
you know, Renee Fleming and Heidi Grant Murphy was another one.
Q. Hm.
A. Major careers came from that year and, I mean, the biggest. For example,
Susan and Renee among them.
Q. Wow. And Seattle and Chicago have played a role in your career.
A. Seattle played well, both firsts. When I won the Met, I was actually already
engaged to go to Chicago and sing a small role in the opera called Tannhauser, Wagner. And so that happened November of ’88. And then somewhere along the line Seattle heard about me and I came here in summer of ’89 and debuted as Volter in Meistersinger. So Seattle is really near and dear to my heart.
Q. Huge. You spent a lot of time here.
A. Yeah, absolutely.
Q. Now, then, your recording career. How did that take off?
A. Well, that you know, the reputation I guess was growing and somewhere
along the line I connected up with BMG, Bertelsmann Music Group.
Q. Yeah.
A. And RCA.
Q. Don’t forget you wanted to tell people what my name means in German.
A. That’s right, yeah. Dick Staub means fat dust. But anyway.
Q. Yeah. And you wanted to tell them how you would say Laurel and Hardy in
German.
A. That’s right, dick and doff, which is fat and stupid.
Q. You see, folks, what a fun thing it is to learn other languages and apply them
in practical, constructive ways in culture.
A. So I start a relationship with RCA, which is part of the BMG group.
Q. Right.
A. And I was with them for three years. Did some great stuff. And now, I’m
really excited that I am with Deutsche Grammophon, which is part of the Universal Music Family.
Q. Tell folks about this new CD.
A. That is, it’s called Ben Heppner, Airs Francais. Just-don’t pronounce the S’s.
And sound like Crusoe, you sound so good, Airs Francais.
Q. Okay. And how did you compile this collection?
A. French opera we-we-we decided to do a French disk, and we got all the
music together. We found out that there was like three hours worth, so it was impossible. So we-how do we narrow it down? So we decided to do French Grand Opera from the nineteenth century. We chose three composers: Berlioz, Meyerbeer, and Massenet. And we throw one more, a guy by the name of Halevy, but he fits in the same mold. So three composers and I try to do stuff that was primarily my repertoire rather than stuff that everybody else sang.
Q. Yeah.
A. And that’s how I came up with this.
Q. It’s gorgeous.
A. It’s a bit-if you like alternative, that’s it.
Q. Now, My Secret Heart. What’s the story behind that one?
A. I based that on sort of the time frame of my mother’s life.
Q. Yeah.
A. My mother was born in 1910. I came along quite late in her life. And so I
sort of based the music everything from Roses of Picardy through to Be My Love, which is when I came along actually was about ’56 was when–I think it was, or ’55–was when that-it came out, The Toast of New Orleans, I think, is the movie.
Q. Yeah.
A. Anyway, and it’s all stuff in between from film and-and-and Broadway or,
you know, sort of. It’s English stuff.
Q. Now, this January you were to be here and you got laryngitis.
A. I did.
Q. What is-what happens when an opera singer gets laryngitis?
A. Well, mine-you know, sometimes laryngitis lasts, you know, two or three
days, so it’s just, you know, swelling in your-in the vocal chords. And I had it. And it took a lot longer. So I ended up having to take three months off. In fact, actually I’m just really coming back to it.
Q. Wow.
A. And that’s-you know, that’s a point you talk about, my intersection with-with
faith
Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œand with, you know, in the real life. This really is where it comes in, in a big
way.
Let’s pick up there when we come back with Ben Heppner. And we’ll
talk about his faith journey coming up right after this. This is Dick Staub. You’re listening to Seattle’s Christian Talk AM 820, where belief meets real life. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back.
(Break.)
This is from Airs Francais. And it is a wonderful recording Deutsche Grammophon. And you can spend more time with Ben Heppner, our guest, and the London Symphony Orchestra by picking up a copy of that-that CD. And you’ll find when you go to any fine record store or go online that there are some other Ben Heppner albums there that you’ll want to pick up as well.
Q. You were just talking about laryngitis and the faith journey.
A. January 17th was sort of my Waterloo. I-I had been struggling throughout the
fall and then I was doing some recitals. So¢â‚¬¦
Q. What does struggling mean to you?
A. Well, I wasn’t-I wasn’t doing-I wasn’t singing to my satisfaction to my own
standards. And now, quite frankly, I never make my own standards. But I wasn’t even making my minimum standard. So, you know, it wasn’t going so I had some performances in Chicago and in the Met where I was not very happy actually. And December was mostly off. I started again in Quebec City in a recital with just me and a piano. And then I came to Toronto, hometown for me. And about two-thirds of the way through my voice just basically gave right out. It would, you know, I was getting a¢â‚¬¦ I-I felt nervous about it. I could feel it. The audience didn’t hear it for awhile, but then it became very obvious, and I just eventually had to stop right in the middle of it. And that threw me for a loop. That really did threw me for a loop. And I ended up then, since then, this is my really my third performance back on-would be May 1st. And, in fact, I’m still just starting slowly. I’m then going back and I’m going to do more rebuilding. It’s just taken a time. It took an emotional toll. It took I mean, vocally, I needed to rebuild and emotionally, you know. And, of course, that’s where faith meets reality. You know, I have my wife and kids, of course, are very much with me and praying for me. And I have lots of friends. So I think if there’s been any great things come out of this, a lot of people will have probably started praying that didn’t used to. And so I think that this has been very good for them as well. And so this has been incredible. I mean, the-the-the, you know, reading. I’m reading scripture. Particularly I’m finding the Psalms are very speaking much-very much into my life-my life these days.
Q. Hm. How did your faith journey begin? What were you raised in?
A. Well, I was raised my name Heppner is actually a Mennonite name, if that
means anything to anybody. And although I wasn’t raised within a Mennonite church, I started attending a-a-a local church at a very early age, and then continued in that denomination. It’s called the Christian and Missionary Alliance. And I still¢â‚¬¦
Q. By the way, I was raised in the CMA, too.
A. Yeah, great. I still-we still are there. And so at about the age, I think I was
nine, when I first sort of came to the idea that I knew to make some kind of a commitment to walk with Jesus on a continual basis. And made that commitment, and to a greater or lesser degrees have been walking that way ever since.
Q. Hm. Were there any like big paradigm shift moments later on in life,
moments when-when this is a defining moment in my spiritual life, in my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus?
A. Probably it was more of a journey, but yeah, there were certainly these
watershed moments. I think one of them probably is these last three months–
Q. Really.
A. –have been-have really, you know, you refocus. I mean, people talk about,
for example, September 11th, having an incredible affect upon them. And they start to realize that things have you heard the expression, the kids use it sometimes, that’s so September 11th.
Q. Yeah, yeah.
A. You know he doesn’t, that guy just doesn’t
Q. Get it.
A. ¢€œhe doesn’t get it. He doesn’t take anything seriously. So that may be. But
for me it’s probably the priorities, you know, shifted. I certainly have rearranged my touring schedule from six years ago. I made the decision to cut back the number of weeks, and that made a huge difference to my life because I was doing far too much time away. So this meant a whole lot to me, to my family and to my kids, you know, that dad wasn’t away continually.
Q. Did you feel your career was in jeopardy? That you were threatened? That-
that, I mean, when you’re in the midst of something like this, do you wonder if it’s a permanent kind of thing? Do those kinds of things¢â‚¬¦
A. The thing I’m going through now?
Q. Yeah.
A. I get the sense that maybe, yeah, that there may be, you know¢â‚¬¦ I’m sure the
tongues are wagging and there’s all sorts of rumors flying about. But I make a good point of just not listening to them. And I don’t even answer them because it’s¢â‚¬¦ Most of it’s just complete junk and it has no truth.
Q. Right. But within your own quietness before God, you’re-you’re wrestling
through, you know, some stuff.
A. Is this it?
Q. Yeah.
A. Is this the end of this road, you know?
Q. Yeah.
A. And, actually, I’m-I’ve come to a real, it isn’t, but I was very calm about that
part of it.
Q. Really.
A. Yeah. I mean, there’s one part of me that was calm. I have to say if-if I-I
wanted to keep on keeping on, but if that was the end, I was okay with that, too.
Q. Yeah.
A. I was completely resigned.
Q. When you think of the word stewardship, you know, we have this idea that
we, as followers of Jesus, we live under the authority of God. We want every area of our life to count for God. We begin to realize we have certain talents and abilities that-that God has given to us. We feel an obligation to use them well. How does all that mix into your-your understanding of what you do in your life?
A. Steward is a good way of looking at it. We’ve been given certain talents.
Q. Yeah.
A. Somebody’s talent might be making money. You know, other people’s talent
might be, you know, I mean building great cathedrals or buildings or we have everybody has talents. And how you use those in the bigger scheme of things
Q. Right.
A. ¢€œas-as God would look down and speak into our lives through various means.
How are we going to be stewarding the resources that we’ve been given?
Q. Yeah, yeah. What-what are some of the challenges and opportunities that you
feel your career affords you as a Christian in terms of being able to-to be effective for Jesus where you are?
A. Well, I’ve-I’m not a-a, you know, fire and brimstone guy who would get out
there and in your face.
Q. Right.
A. I’m trying, you know, I-I-I sort of feel that I’m a sinner that’s been knocked to
the-knocked to my knees by the sounds of grace. To quote, ( “metkenmeedima.”) I like that, you know, it’s just I’m the same as everybody else except I’ve heard-I’ve heard the gospel. I’ve heard-I’ve heard that Jesus wants to speak into my life. He wants to be part of my everyday conversation, part of my everyday walk. And-and that’s where I’m living. And I’m just in my very imperfect way trying to live this out in front of people.
Q. Yeah, yeah. Do-do when you think about, you know, people talk about the oversized egos of opera stars and of that world. And there are some character quality issues that Jesus speaks to us about that in every career has-has different demands and challenges. But when you’re in a position where you are having as many extraordinarily wonderful things said about you and your work as you are, how does being a disciple of Jesus and wanting to be who Jesus wants you to be play into all of that when you’re in that kind of career? I mean, you’re in a career where the record label wants to make you seem bigger than God. They-they want your reputation to be huge. All of that stuff. And it is big. How does all that fit?
A. I always thought it is not my ego that’s oversized. Well, we’re working at that.
Q. Yeah.
A. Hello. Anyway, I-I’ve never had-I try not to. I mean, I’ve had my moments, I think, where I get myself in a-get my knickers in a knot, as I say, and I shouldn’t. But mostly I think that, you know, there are other people that are in a pickle, too. And some-sometimes, I mean, you know, passions are-they get pretty strong when you’re on the-when you’re on the stage or particularly rehearsal. That’s where things really can go wrong.
Q. Really. Oh, man.
A. More the rehearsal. And I just try to keep it all in check.
Q. Wow.
When we come back some concluding comments from Ben Heppner. And I’m looking forward to talking to him about the whole relationship of faith to popular culture and to culture. We’ll talk about that when we come back. Don’t go away.
(Break.)
Q. Those of you watching on television can see that this man is laughing at what I just did. And what I just did is I took him singing his beautiful operatic music and transitioned into POD, which is a group of Christian guys. And-and the reason I felt the liberty to do that was because I heard you just before you came in here bemoaning the fact that there was no place for kids to hear POD and ska bands and alternative groups that are walking with Jesus.
A. Exactly.
Q. And-and-and so, you know, people that are thinking, well here’s this opera guy, I mean, you know. What does he care about all that stuff? And here’s a guy that’s saying, well, if I could get Pedro the Lion, do you think I could get Over at the Tower over here?
A. That’s right.
Q. You know, I want to go get Pedro the Lion for my son. Tell me about your understanding of culture and why it is important for us to learn to listen to the language of culture and why it is important for us to be building bridges back and forth between our faith and the culture.
A. I have a-I have three children. My daughter is 21, and I have two sons, 17 and 16. And particularly, the 17 year old is big into music. He’s, you know, played piano a little bit. But he’s more into bass guitar, guitar, and does vocals. He forms a new band every couple of weeks, it seems, and it’s a big passion in his life. And the-the church crowd, quite frankly, doesn’t really identify with it. So I’m thinking, as we’re listening to the stuff that he listens to on the radio, or he has stuff in the CD player, playing in the car let’s say, there’s no radio station that plays this kind of stuff. And I would rather that they listen to stuff that has this-that has this undercurrent of Christian philosophy underneath it even though for us old guys it doesn’t necessarily thrill us. It’s not supposed to. Do you remember when you were young? It’s not supposed to make sense to us. But we need to allow it to be. People, the kids of this generation, of the new generation, have to find their own expression of their own faith. Without it, we lose them.
Q. Now, you spend a lot of time out in culture. I mean, you’re out there.
A. Yeah.
Q. What do you-what do you feel we’re doing right and wrong as people of faith in terms of engaging the culture?
A. I think we’re too judgmental, mostly. I-I-I-I’m a little bit, for some of the conservative side, I’m a-maybe I’m a little bit edgy because¢â‚¬¦
Q. How so?
A. Well, you know, I work on stage, you know. And I might kiss a girl on stage sometimes. Or¢â‚¬¦
Q. Well, of course you are. You’re an opera singer.
A. But with my-but with my-with my repertoire, for example, I’m more likely to get the fish than the girl. And I’m probably going to commit suicide at the end or-or-or, you know, I mean, and I’m in very awkward situations.
Q. Yeah.
A. So it-it feels a little uncomfortable. Don’t put your son on the stage, Mrs. Worthington, kind of stuff.
Q. Yeah.
A. And this is I mean, I’m living out there in the real world. And doing real-real stuff, I mean, but it’s not-it’s not all neat and tied up and packaged in a way that
Q. Yeah.
A. We don’t have an answer for it.
Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œfrequently when¢â‚¬¦ And we Christians want to.
Q. But-but when-then when you look at church culture as a you know, when you look at the culture you’re in, it’s rich, it’s full of talent, it’s full of expression, it’s full of energy. The word passion has come up multiple times here. Then when you step into many, many churches there is not that sense of excellence. There’s often not that sense of enthusiasm and passion. There is a whole different language. Now, you know of different languages because opera involves different languages.
A. Uh-huh.
Q. But church really often requires people from this culture to learn a whole different language. Musical styles that have become popular in church are often very sub-culturish. They’re not connecting to the broader culture. What do you-when you walk back and forth between those two worlds, what do you wish you could be saying to the church about who we need to be?
A. Well, we need to be authentic. We have to be authentic. And that our expression, however it is, for me, you know, in my mid-40s, or to my son who is 17, they need to find an authentic expression. And it won’t be the same. But we need to allow the other. The 17 year old also needs to allow mine. And I’m probably more conservative than I used to be even. And, but we need to be aware that-that there’s got to be a diversity here. We have to-we have to understand that.
Q. I read about a performing arts center that-that is attempting to deal with spiritual themes and so forth. And you’ve been very supportive of it.
A. Yeah.
Q. Drama Troup.
A. Yeah. They’re called Brookstone Theater.
Q. Yeah.
A. And they’re-they’re trying to sort of radically reconnect spirit and theater. Radically meaning, “from the root.”
Q. Yeah.
A. And sort of-to bring in-in enigmatic terms, spiritual value into the-into the theater, and talk about these kinds of themes. So it-this is a-a really professional theater. It’s not bathrobe theater as-as we have know it in our church circles.
Q. When you look at church music today I’m asking you to do something that I probably shouldn’t ask you to do and, obviously, you’re a professional–but I have a friend who’s a professional musician, and he has a really difficult time being part of the music of the church because it’s stylistically non connecting to him, and it’s-the level of excellence is not there. And he really wrestles with it because he wants to be a good steward of what God has given him, but he almost, every once in a while, feels like the pearl before swine, to put words in his mouth that he’d probably not use himself if he were alone. How do you work through all of that stuff?
A. Well, I mean, in our church I’m assuming it’s probably a little bit too contemporary for him. And, you know, I struggle with that. I’d like things sometime to have a little more thought, and that we don’t have to-we don’t have to sacrifice the-the quality of things because we get a feeling from it somehow.
Q. Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
A. And I’d like people to open up. At least in the church that I attend, there tends to be more I mean, if I sing The Old Rugged Cross, they will have more reaction, more warmer reaction to that than if I sing something from Morris Green.
Q. Yeah.
A. You know, The Lord’s Name Be Praised, or something.
Q. Yeah.
A. So¢â‚¬¦
Q. Do you sing in your church?
A. Once in a while. I really-actually it’s really cool. The guys don’t ask me to do more than about three times a year.
Q. Yeah. Why do you say that’s cool?
A. Well, first of all, I’m usually not there. But also then I’m not expected when I’m home, they haven’t made a big deal of expecting me to go because
Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œbecause they just-well, they’re just happy that I come in and sit in the pew.
Q. Yeah. That’s-that is wonderful. What words of advice do you have for somebody that’s right now-who is-is wants to be an artist, and they want to follow Jesus as an artist, and they’re-they’re kind of deciding how to proceed down the path of pursuing what it is they think they’re supposed to be doing with their life?
A. Well, it’s not going to be easy. You have to have thick skin, I think. And you have to have-you have to be-we used the word already, passion. You have to be passion-driven. You have to absolutely know that this is what is-it’s all about. And rather than rejecting the old fuddy-duddies out there who don’t understand you, educate. Bring along. Help them understand what-what you know. If you take a glove and nail it to a wall that has some kind of a meaning to you, you need to help people understand that. And, you know, it might be shocking to mom and dad, but somewhere along the line, if they understand that your motives are real and true and honest
Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œthey’re going to-they’re going to get it.
Q. And that authenticity is really what bridges the generations.
A. Absolutely.
Q. Yeah. Totally. It’s been very interesting talking with you.
A. (Ish be danke meesh.) Thank you.
Q. Auf wiedersehen.
Well, this is Dick Staub. We’ve been enjoying some time with Ben Heppner. Those of you that would like to spend more time with him, pick up a copy of one of his CDs. We’ll be back with more coming up right after this.
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